Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait at the Age of 34, 1640, National Gallery, London.
A couple of days ago (Picture Of The Day 28) I posed a teaser: why would a right-handed artist tend to paint themselves so that their right shoulder appears to be closer to us? This self portrait by Rembrandt would seem to provide the ideal opportunity to explain. But first, I want to ask you another question. My impulse is to write ‘self portrait’ without a hyphen, and that is how the National Gallery writes it, but in most sources – including my annoying automatic spell-check (I know, I could switch it off, but…) suggests ‘self-portrait’, with a hyphen. I can’t for any reason imagine why it should have a hyphen. Can anyone enlighten me? The next question is: how do we know that Rembrandt was right-handed in the first place? Well, apart from the fact that most people are, and that, for centuries, left-handed people were forced to use their right hands (wait till Saturday for that), there is a way of telling. Look at this pen and ink drawing by Rembrandt.
It is a drawing of a painting he saw at an auction in Amsterdam in 1639, and a note to the top right of the sketch tells us it fetched 3,500 guilders – an enormous price at the time, apparently. It is a portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, author of The Book of the Courtier, and a good friend of Raphael, who painted it. Have a look at the tiny bit of shading on Castiglione’s forehead, and the shading on the far right of the image. Can you see that the diagonal lines go from top right to bottom left? These are the lines you automatically use for shading if you are right-handed. Southpaws like myself draw lines which go from top left to bottom right. Check out some drawings by Leonardo if you want to be sure!
My choice of illustration is not coincidental, as Rembrandt was clearly influenced by Raphael’s portrait when he came to paint himself.
This is Rembrandt at the age of 34, painting himself in 1640 at the height of his fame. What we probably wouldn’t notice, though, is that he is not wearing his own clothes – this is not the fashion of 1640, it is more like 1520. Even from the sketch of the Castiglione portrait you can see the influence – one shoulder turned towards us, the same arm framing the figure in the foreground, a dark hat framing the face, and a white shirt helping to give shape to the chin. The two figures are facing in opposite directions, it’s true, but that’s because Rembrandt has also been influenced by at least two other paintings, and also because he is painting himself.
When executing a self portrait, you have to be able to see your reflection in a mirror, and also have the canvas in front of you. If you pick up your paint brush (try this at home, though not necessarily with a loaded brush…) and hold it on the canvas, you do not want to look at the mirror over your painting arm, it is awkward, and your arm and shoulder might get in the way. So you look over your other shoulder towards the mirror. If you are right-handed, therefore, you would be looking over your left shoulder. But, of course, you are looking in a mirror, so the image you see is a mirror image, and that shoulder, in a painting, would look like your right shoulder. And that’s what we see in this painting. And if you think about it, the arm at the back of the painting looks like a left arm – which means it was Rembrandt’s right arm while he was painting. Notice how this hand is hidden away behind the parapet – as he was painting with it, he couldn’t see what it looked like, so it was just easier to hide it away.
If any of the above wasn’t clear, I’m sorry, but without being physically present, with a mirror, I can’t explain any further! In most of Rembrandt’s many self portraits he does indeed appear to be looking over his right shoulder – although he did occasionally ring the changes, and look the other way.
Dürer was also right-handed. He painted three self-portraits, and this is the second, at the age of 26. Painted in 1498, not that long after his first journey to Italy, he shows all the self-confidence of a young and successful man, incredibly wealthy and very fashionable. There is nothing about this portrait that would tell you that the subject is an artist, however ‘arty’ he might appear. It’s a wonderful ensemble in black and white, with a pleated blouse emerging at the elbows and revealed across his chest – although not much of the chest is covered. It’s a rather louche, low cut affair, the amount of flesh visible only emphasized by the twisted black and white cord which holds his cloak around his back. And he’s so enormously pleased with that hair! This is Dürer as a young aristocrat, giving himself the status he was aspiring to, rather than that of the class into which he was born. But the arm resting across the parapet, the gaze towards us, and the square-cut blouse are all repeated by Rembrandt. At least the latter has the decency to keep his shirt on, and the square-cut item is more like a low-cut jerkin – the same sort, more-or-less, as the one worn by Castiglione in the Raphael portrait.
Rembrandt’s palette is far more like that of the Raphael, too – but then, this was the palette he was using from the late 1630s onwards – rich, warm browns. The Raphael was not the only painting to come up in auction in Amsterdam that year that Rembrandt saw – a Titian, then thought to be a portrait of the poet Ludovico Ariosto, but now believed to be a member of the Venetian Barbarigo family, also fetched a pretty price. By one of those odd coincidences, it has ended up in the National Gallery, along with the Rembrandt. Like Dürer, the subject sits with his arm resting on a parapet – or that’s what I thought until recently. The elbow isn’t quite resting, I don’t think, as if he has lifted it up to show off that gorgeous blue quilted sleeve to its best advantage. Indeed, for years this painting was known as Portrait of a Man with a Blue Sleeve – the sleeve would almost seem to be the true subject of the painting. The parapet was an innovation of 15thCentury Flanders. It helps to explain why we can’t see the sitter’s legs, and makes the image look more real. It is as if we are looking through a window at the subject, and as well as keeping us away, the parapet also acts as a bridge to connect our world to that of the sitter. Yes, two completely contradictory impulses, but it worked so well that artists kept using it. It makes a convenient shelf on which to rest an arm (or not quite, in the Titian), thus using the arm to frame the image. Rembrandt has slightly adjusted Titian’s conception. Notice how it is Mr Barbarigo’s right eye which appears to be looking directly at us: it is on the central vertical axis of the painting. It is as if he has just noticed us, but is paying us little heed. Rembrandt, on the other hand, is. It is his left eye which is on the central axis. He has turned his head to give us his full attention. It makes him look more open, and more sympathetic.
Rembrandt seems to be have been inspired by all three of these images when he painted himself, but why? Why is he in fancy dress as someone from the 1520s? The fact is, this is not simply a self portrait It is related to a genre of painting common in the Netherlands in the 17th Century known as a tronij (pronounced trony, roughly speaking), which derives from an old Dutch term for ‘head’. They look like portraits, but are really character studies, or paintings of characters, fictional or otherwise. Musicians were particularly popular, but so were characters such as soldiers or scholars. Sometimes these were specific – like Alexander the Great, for example, or St Paul. So here we have Rembrandt as someone from the 16th Century. He is deliberately comparing himself to Dürer, and comparing his talent to that of Titian and Raphael – a remarkable thing to do, on the face of it. By buying this portrait you would be getting three for the price of one: a painting by Rembrandt, an image of Rembrandt, and a tronij. It’s a great piece of marketing – an image of the best, by the best, in a long tradition of greats. Sadly for Rembrandt, he wasn’t always riding this high – but everything he had learnt stood him in good stead when the going got tough. And his art just got better and better and better.